A couple of years ago, I was flipping through Netflix and came across Hamlet (2000), which stars, of all people, Ethan Hawke as Hamlet. Hamlet was always my least favourite of the Bard’s plays–and over the course of my life, I’ve been dragged to see many. Live, and on film. A bit bored, I figured that anything starring Ethan Hawke as Hamlet must be good for a laugh. I mean, Sinister, anyone? No, I thought not. So I clicked it on.
And expecting to be amused, I was…amazed.
The dialogue is the same as always, though I was a bit disappointed that Fortinbras (Casey Affleck) is more or less cut from the production. This isn’t the Branagh version, determined to include every word of every folio and achieve perfection in every historical detail possible. No, this is a Hamlet for for Generation X–the words they may be the same, but the director, Michael Almereyda (whose most recent project was Anarchy, an update of Cymbeline), applies them to a universe in which the world has changed, just never the people.
This is New York City, 2000: “Denmark” is now a corporation, headquartered in the Hotel Elsinore in NYC, and young Hamlet, a film student, has reluctantly returned to see his Uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) “crowned” the Denmark Corp CEO at a press conference. He arrives late, dressed like an Occupy hipster and carrying all of his yeah-I’m-the-next-Tarantino film supplies, making a real effort to be as disruptive as possible. Lazily leaning against the wall and regarding the proceedings with maximum disdain. he passes notes to his ex-girlfriend Ophelia under the nose of her brother Laertes (a marvelous Liev Schrieber), upbraids his mother (Diane Venora) for marrying Claudius, and is rude to his uncle/stepfather (whom he doesn’t yet know is a murderer). His odious personality merrily skips downhill from there; the only person he seems to really respect is his father’s ghost (Sam Shepard.) Even Horatio he seems to regard as more sycophant than actual friend; or rather, Horatio seems to regard Hamlet with genuine affection, but Hamlet is too self-absorbed to view Horatio as anything other than a warm body to appreciate his theatrics and to recount Hamlet’s tragedies.
In short, Hamlet is a whining jackass. An immature smartass given to spout one-liners when he should know better. A transparent drama queen whose preference for is for filming himself delivering soliloquies instead of, you know, actually facing his issues like an adult. And as far as his relationship with Ophelia goes, he manages to be a jerk of In the Company of Men proportions. Granted, he’s got a right to be ticked when he finds out that Claudius killed his daddy and married his mother, but with a few exceptions, he does almost nothing about it but bitch and launch vague plots with vaguer endgames. Mostly he just whines and whines, treats both his mother and Ophelia (Julia Stiles, who might as well not even be there) like trash, talks into his cameras, and gets himself in one self-destructive scrape after another. He never makes an attempt to resolve things before they get to that “tragic” stage. “Hey, Laertes bro, how was France? Croissants, huh? You crack me up, dude. Anyway you know how O’s been having a nervous breakdown and they can’t find your dad? I know you’re loyal to Denmark, but you’ve really got to hear me out on this, man–”
Nah, why do that when you can set up scenes where you can wail, scream, look even more tortured and engage in swordfights?
All the while he poses–and when I say “poses,” I mean he strikes GQ style poses and “vogues” while looking really, really tormented.
To sum up: Ethan Hawke is the perfect Hamlet. The real Hamlet. Too many productions of Hamlet make the titular character into a tortured hero or at least a victim of tragic circumstances. He is, of course, neither: he’s a pompous twit, who, in his immaturity, whines and makes pretentious speeches while letting situations run away from him, finally getting everyone killed for his inability to man up and deal with his fucking issues. Yes, he does finally off Claudius in the last minute of the film, but too little, too late, and of course only after taking everyone he actually cared about with him. Horatio is the exception, I guess, because he’s going to have to write the memoir and consult on the biopic, and yes, Hamlet 2000 would be thinking exactly that. And far more than other versions, this one makes it clear that Hamlet had other, better options, and preferred to be… a jerk.
Surprisingly, the film doesn’t lose much in the updating, and in certain ways, actually gains. Perhaps the most obvious difficulty with the year 2000 is that the late King/CEO would have almost certainly been autopsied, and it’s a lot harder to get away with poisoning these days than it was in the days when arsenic was nicknamed “inheritance powder.” Polonius, played with delightful kiss-assery by Bill Murray, is Claudius’s lawyer rather than his chamberlain, which also makes it a tad puzzling as to why Hamlet should be a “prince out of (Ophelia’s) star,” rather than a legitimate candidate for her affections. “The Mousetrap,” rather than being a play, turns into a rather obvious student film by Hamlet (and, in a nice touch, about the about the same coherence and quality of most student films). Other changes are more cosmetic: Laertes and Hamlet wear modern fencing equipment in the final scene; and Fortinbras’ “overthrow” is instead a hostile takeover with an “army” of corporate lawyers. The setting is a modern and mostly dark New York, the music mostly techno, and Ophelia’s meltdown makes very good use of the Guggenheim. Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech is delivered in a fluorescent-lit Blockbuster while scenes from “The Crow” play on overhead TVs. He wanders the aisles nattering his lines like a college stoner holding forth at 2am to an audience of bored roomies. Then he slouches at the counter, staring glumly into space while the indifferent clerk checks out his pile of videos. You can practically hear him saying,”Oh, aren’t I soooo intense? Worship my brooding intensity! Oh, I must go read some Goethe while watching Reservoir Dogs now so I can be even more fucking intense about my shitty relationship with my girlfriend–are you seeing anybody? Hey babe, want to come back to my place and watch me brood intensely about my dad’s death?” But the integrity of story remains intact.
One thing often forgotten is that the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” have, with the exception of Pop’s murder, not really touched Prince Hamlet. He’s never been poor or hungry or sick. He’s never made his own bed, washed his dirty boxers, filled out a FAFSA or 1040, or even had to worry about budgeting his semester’s allowance. He’s a rich kid, a trust-fund baby with unlimited opportunities for, say, hiring a PI to get the goods on Claudius to hand over to the authorities the way Claus von Bulow’s kids did. After all, the only proof he really has at the beginning is that Dad’s ghost told him (in a quite moving scene between Hawke & Shepard), but watch that try to hold up in court. I also doubt a jury would be too impressed with Claudius’ hysterical over-reaction to Hamlet’s “Mousetrap,” either. (You’d think, from his performance, that they’d made poor Kyle watch Showgirls again.) Or Hamlet could have used his knowledge to blackmail the King, for money and/or position, or even just to get him to move some non-extradition country and leave Mama behind. A more intriguing possibility might involve making common cause with Fortinbras and betraying the King. Now, some of you are doubtless saying, “But they had to follow Shakespeare’s script! Hamlet doesn’t have those options!”
Here we get into the dark realm of “theory,” I suppose. Just because an author doesn’t mention a possibility does not mean that it doesn’t exist, or that the author might not have intended you to wonder why a character makes one choice without considering another. True enough, in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet doesn’t consider those options, nor is it suggested he has them. On the other hand, he doesn’t not have those options either; he just doesn’t explore them, and given the other changes they make in the 2000 version, they might have explored these more. This could have been done without altering the script at all: In Hamlet 2000, for example, there’s a scene where Hamlet, concealing a pistol, creeps into Denmark’s headquarters and heads toward Claudius’s office. Polonius stops him for the confab about Ophelia and not letting her “walk in sunlight.” Hamlet drifts away and Polonius stares into a security camera and mentions that in his youth “he suffered much for love.” Hamlet then slips into the office with the gun drawn, clearly bent on some form of homicide/workplace massacre–but finding Claudius out (probably having a nooner with Mommy), Hamlet thinks better of it.
After Polonius tells the King and Queen (whilst lounging at their rooftop pool, in what is I suppose a treat for anyone who wants to see a post-Showgirls Kyle MacLachlan wet) that Hamlet might be going a bit cuckoo, they then send a wired Ophelia undercover. Here’s where seeing Hamlet in my younger years always really got on my nerves: he treats her like dirt, then, once she’s drowned and safely six feet under, makes a show of how much he really, really loved her, even telling the distraught Laertes that a “brother’s” grief is nothing to his. Not that he actually displays any… Again, poseur. Makes me wonder how many of those folks who in middle age mourn “the one got away” conveniently forget how they actually treated ”the one” back when there was still a chance, and in particular, how it just might have been their fault that “the one” slipped the net in the first place.
One twist they added that I rather enjoyed: The Queen is really into Claudius. No passive wallflower she, Venora’s Queen lives with the new King in a porno-palace hotel suite with red satin sheets and mirrors everywhere, wears skimpy black negligees, straddles Claudius with her bare thighs, nibbles his neck and sucks his face. Hamlet yells at his mother that she can’t possibly be with Claudius out of passion, since at her age, “the blood is tame; it waits on the judgment.” Again, this shows Hamlet’s immaturity–thinking that nobody has sex over the age of thirty, or maybe thirty-five. Kids and teenagers think that way; most of us grow out of it by college age. (That doesn’t mean we necessarily want to think about our parents or grandparents getting laid, but rest assured, they do.) In his fury, he lashes out at his mother about incest and betrayal like a three-year-old being denied a second helping of Cherry Garcia and manages to kill Polonius. Mommy naturally helps him cover it up, as if Hamlet were Scott Peterson. By contrast, Claudius comes across as the eminently more sensible when he takes control of the situation.
The constant darkness and thumping techno soundtrack might get on your nerves, and if you’re a Canon Nazi, you might hate the whole concept. But almost all the performances are astonishingly good. Hawke’s Hamlet stands out, but all almost all the supporting performances–especially Liev Schreiber, who probably didn’t see a Sabretooth in his future–are terrific. (Julia Stiles might be okay, but doesn’t have all that much to do, so it’s hard to tell.)
So do catch this movie on Netflix. You may love it and agree with every word; or you may love it but disagree; or you may hate it and think the whole thing is a complete and unnecessary waste. But to anyone who’s read the play, and especially if you’ve seen other versions, Hamlet 2000 is a definitely a different take on the concept that “thinking makes it so.”
To give a prosaic example: I work from home about 75% of the time, and when I do I always keep the tube on (call me crazy, but silence freaks me out.) My then-15-year-old son was homeschooled, but it was a snowy day and a bunch of his bleary-eyed buddies tripped in to disturb the peace. The film happened to be at the graveyard scene (includes a great blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo of Jeffrey Wright singing “All Along the Watchtower”) and “Bob,” the head dingleberry, said,”Oh, Hamlet?”
A bit surprised, I said, “You’ve seen this movie before?”
He looked at me as if I were stupid, or as if I thought he was. “I had Hamlet junior year,” he explained, making Hamlet sound like the chicken pox. Then he plopped himself on the floor and asked questions about how they’d updated it, until finally Son & Co. yelled at him to come upstairs and make plans to do whatever it is teenage boys do on their snow days. Around four, they found out that the vacation was being extended to the following day, so they decided to trip over to somebody’s house to play Xbox. On the way out, Bob began “Melissa?”
“Is there a Wittenberg University?”
I was surprised they hadn’t gone over this in class, but resisted the urge to say “Look it up!” and explained, “Yeah, it was where the Protestant Reformation began, you should know, Martin Luther–”
“No, no, is there a Wittenberg University in the United States?”
“Actually, yes. In Ohio.”
“Do they have a film school?”